, Volume 66, Issue 1, pp 3-22

The scaling of spatial attention in visual search and its modification in healthy aging

Abstract

A model of visual search (Greenwood & Parasuraman, 1999) postulating that visuospatial attention is composed of two processing components—shifting and scaling of a variable-gradient attentional focus—was tested in three experiments. Whereas young participants are able to dynamically constrict or expand the focus of visuospatial attention on the basis of prior information, in healthy aging individuals visuospatial attention becomes a poorly focused beam, unable to be constricted around one array element. In the present work, we sought to examine predictions of this view in healthy young and older participants. An attentional focus constricted in response to an element-sized precue had the strongest facilitatory effect on visual search. However, this was true only when the precue correctly indicated the location of a target fixed in size. When precues incorrectly indicated target location or when target size varied, the optimal spatial scale of attention for search was larger, encompassing a number of array elements. Healthy aging altered the deployment of attentional scaling: The benefit of valid precues on search initially (in participants 65-74 years of age) was increased but later (in those 75-85 years of age) was reduced. The results also provided evidence that cue size effects are attentional, not strategic. This evidence is consistent with the proposed model of attentional scaling in visual search.